WASHINGTON – Although coverage was buried by the screeching headlines about the upcoming 2016 campaign and terrorism, President Obama gave one of the greatest speeches of his presidency last week.
The 150th anniversary of the nation’s passage of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, the one abolishing slavery, was the topic. Standing in the Capitol, Obama calmly traced our long disgraceful attachment to that “peculiar institution.”
Obama reminded us that one more century passed before poll taxes, lynchings, literacy tests and repressions of all kinds, North and South, ended once and for all under the civil rights laws of the mid-1960s.
Our racial history is far more shameful than Obama painted it. He could have mentioned that slavery was enshrined, deeply embedded in the Constitution, in a kind of code, in five places.
One of the rawest clauses, Article 1, section 9, legalized American slavery for an additional 20 years, through 1808. Its defender in the Federalist Papers was James Madison, later president.
In a breathtaking twist of hypocrisy, Madison said the tract guaranteed the end of slavery as of 1808. Madison kept slaves in the White House as servants. He held 100 men and women in perpetual bondage.
Obama’s graceful address is profitable reading. It can be found in many addresses on the Internet, including postings from the White House.
But what was made of it is a troubling index of our times. Commentators on the hard statist left and the hysterical right took one line of it and made it a boomlet.
Obama said, “We betray the efforts of the past if we fail to push back against bigotry in all its forms.” It was a truism that Republican Presidents Gerald Ford, Richard Nixon and George H.W. and George W. Bush might have, and probably did say at other times.
Conservative hate radio seized on the sentence claiming that Obama exploited a historical occasion to make a cheap plug for importing what it claimed was a horde of terrorists from Syria. Obama never mentioned Syria or its refugees.
The left, which includes the national corporate media, said Obama used the speech, which had been long scheduled, as a plea for justice, love and understanding for the unmentioned Syrian refugees.
It was another chapter in an unreasoning guilt trip gilded in ignorance and denial plied by columnists and electronic media analysts who know no more about the new and unchartered threats Americans now face than do the head of the FBI, the boss of Homeland Security or the president.
Among the most unsettling tactics of the dreamy left is its insistence on comparing the refugees from the Middle East to our hideous treatment of the European and Slavic Jews in the late 1930s and 1940s. The comparison is simple-minded, or contrived.
The displaced, largely Muslim refugees often lack ID records, work histories and could easily mix in with people who mean us harm. The Jews we barred were well-known shopkeepers, teachers, bankers and other professionals. Many had resources, many were fluent in English and assimilated easily into Western society. None of their number or religion or class had any history of terrorism.
On the right, demagogues like Donald Trump and hate radio suggest all Muslims, foreign and domestic, may be natural born killers.
The San Bernardino massacre has suddenly thrust fear of terrorism into every living room, onto every kitchen table. And too many in public life are exploiting it. Societal guilt or rage now dominate all discussion. Appeals to the golden rule, common sense, caution and moderation are drowned out, and labeled as a betrayal of “our common values” or outright treachery. We have gone mad.